Nature-Based Solutions Can Tap The Earth’s Carbon-Sequestering Powers

There’s a new (resurrected?) tool for climate change adaptation: Nature-based solutions.

Yesterday, the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report since August, 2021 was released. It reminds us of humanity’s vast arsenal of technology, know-how, and wealth that are available and necessary for a “now or never” dash to a low-carbon economy and society. Sadly, most of these astounding capabilities have been insufficiently worked in efforts to ensure a livable climate in the future.

The IPCC scientists also argue that, alongside tech applications to reduce emissions, we should be harnessing the carbon-sequestering powers of the planet itself. Nature-based solutions — efforts like reforestation and ecosystem restoration — pay for themselves with a triple dividend, as they sequester carbon, boost biodiversity, and aid in human well-being.

What are Nature-Based Solutions?

Half of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere each year is reabsorbed by the planet, so, if we were to restore and protect those systems, we could complement tech-based actions to eliminate fossil fuels. Nature-based solutions address social problems in ways that benefit both people and nature and can play a significant role in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises we currently face.

Such actions are broadly categorized as the protection, restoration, or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; sustainable management of working lands and aquatic systems; or, the creation of novel ecosystems. They:

  • provide adaptation to climate change effects, such as reducing flooding, protecting coastline against sea-level rise, or creating cool spaces in cities
  • enhance biodiversity by creating improved and more resilient ecosystem functioning
  • improve human well-being by ushering in economic benefits through monetary value and job creation

Despite broad recognition of the severe threats to the global economy posed by climate change, less than 5% of climate finance goes towards dealing with climate impacts, and less than 1% goes to coastal protection, infrastructure, and disaster risk management, including nature- based solutions. This is despite growing evidence that natural habitats provide major economic benefits in the form of avoided losses from climate change-related disasters.

A study in Global Change Biology urges policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to consider the synergies and trade-offs associated with nature-based solutions and to follow 4 guiding principles to provide sustainable benefits to society.

  1. Remember that nature-based solutions are not a substitute for the rapid phase out of fossil fuels.
  2. Incorporate a wide range of ecosystems on land and in the sea, not just forests.
  3. Implement policies with the full engagement and consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in a way that respects their cultural and ecological rights.
  4. Design nature-based solutions explicitly to provide measurable benefits for biodiversity.

Decreasing sources and increasing sinks of GHGs through terrestrial ecosystem stewardship and improvements in agriculture are widely cited as having the potential to provide around 30% of the CO2 mitigation needed through to 2030 to keep warming to less than 2°C.

A Plethora of Nature-Based Solutions

Not sure what nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change look like in actual practice? Here are some examples.

One such project is located in the Gola Rainforest National Park, initiated 30 years ago. It has increased biodiversity and the profitability of crops while saving an estimated 500,000 tons of carbon each year through sequestration and avoiding deforestation.

Wisely adjusted land use on peatlands can substantially contribute to low-emission goals and further benefits for farmers, the economy, society, and the environment.

Protecting and restoring habitats along shorelines or in upper catchments can contribute to climate change adaptation by protecting communities and infrastructure from flooding and erosion, at the same time as increasing carbon sequestration and protecting biodiversity.

Increasing green space and planting trees in urban areas can help with cooling and flood abatement while mitigating air pollution, providing recreation and health benefits, and sequestering carbon.

The restoration of a mangrove forest may reduce coastal flooding locally. Indeed, living shorelines are critical, considering 40% of humanity reside near coastal zones and face escalating threats from the climate crisis.

Estuaries can provide southern sea otters with high quality habitats featuring shallow waters, high production and ample food, limited predators, and protected haul-out opportunities. As predators, they’ll eat more invertebrates that would otherwise eat down carbon-absorbing kelp and seagrasses.

Excessive phosphorus export to aquatic ecosystems can lead to impaired water quality. There is a growing interest among watershed managers in using restored wetlands to retain phosphorus from agricultural landscapes and improve water quality.

Land-use changes will continue to act long past the point at which net-zero emissions are achieved and global temperatures peak and will have an important role in planetary cooling in the second half of this century.

Final Thoughts

We all should be listening to this IPCC panel, convened by the United Nations, which is made up of 278 experts from all over the world and who represent a range of disciplines: meteorology, economics, political science, and others. We’ll need to leverage both nature and technology if we’re going to head off the worst of climate change.

And, as the IPCC report’s authors stressed, we need to make quick progress.

As in many things in life, it will not be only one method of mitigation to limit future heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Certainly, there are limits on the extent to which nature-based solutions can contribute to offsetting continued fossil fuel emissions. Nature-based solutions are needed to complement how all sectors of the global economy, from energy and transport to buildings and food, must change rapidly and rapidly.

For instance, constraints on land area and tree growth dynamics limit the amount of carbon that can ultimately be removed by tree planting or forest regrowth, as does the chance of stored carbon being released at a later date. Also, expansion of forestry framed as a climate change mitigation solution, cannot come at the cost of carbon rich and biodiverse native ecosystems and local resource rights.

Crucially, the more ambitious the climate target, the shorter the time frame for such solutions to have an effect on peak warming.

Without rapid phase out of fossil fuel use, climate change threatens to turn emission sinks into sources, as vegetation becomes stressed, wildfires become more frequent, and soils and warm oceans, as the IPCC warned in 2019. We must not look at one tool in the solutions toolkit as the only answer.


 

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